Newly energized nuclear talks with Iran starting Thursday could be an Iranian scam to stave off a military attack, lift economic sanctions and play for time while putting the finishing touches on its nuclear program, or to cut a deal that will leave in place the infrastructure for building a bomb, analysts say.
Experience with rogue nations seeking nuclear capabilities, such as North Korea, shows that Iran could use negotiations to play for time. And the wrong kind of deal could leave the Islamic Republic with the ability to develop a nuclear weapon whenever its clerical leaders see fit, said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
If Iran retains domestic nuclear fuel production, a central component to the Iranian nuclear program, "there is a risk that Iran will at a time of its choosing break out or sneak out to a nuclear weapon," said Dubowitz, an expert on Iran sanctions and nuclear proliferation.
But Dubowitz said any enrichment capability is too big a risk because "no safeguards regime can stop a country dedicated to building nuclear weapons."
U.S. intelligence failed to keep tabs on the Iraqi nuclear program, which Israel destroyed in 1981, and which international inspectors discovered after the first Gulf War was being reconstituted. U.S. intelligence also missed the nuclear reactor Syria bought from North Korea, which Israel destroyed in 2007; and it failed to catch multiple violations of nuclear agreements with North Korea, Dubowitz said.
Of the world's 33 countries with nuclear power, nine have or are believed to have nuclear weapons. Only five nations other than Iran can produce nuclear fuel and are weapons-free: Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands.
"If you think Iran looks more like those five, then there's no problem allowing it to enrich," Dubowitz said. "But if you're afraid Iran looks more like North Korea or Pakistan and more likely to become the 10th nuclear power then are you willing to take the risk?"
The question of permitting Iranian domestic nuclear fuel production should be theoretical until Iran "comes clean" on its past nuclear weaponization activities, as described by the United Nations nuclear watchdog inspectors, Dubowitz said.